Debenhams Workers Continue Struggle to Defend their Jobs

Debenhams workers are engaged in a protracted struggle to defend their jobs. CWI Ireland member Dave Meehan reports on what is at stake in this important industrial battle.

On Tuesday the 21st April 2020, a number of Debenhams workers, represented by the Mandate trade union, began a picket of Debenhams stores in Dublin. This was in response to the decision of Debenhams (a mainly British based department store) to use the Covid-19 crisis to liquidate the Irish arm of its business operation with the loss of almost 2,000 jobs in 11 stores across the Irish state.

The Debenhams Ireland management put the company into administration claiming it wasn’t as profitable as its UK counterpart. A Claim denied by the workers and their union. As the strikers picketed the department store on Henry Street in Dublin city centre, they did so with full respect for the state imposed social distancing measures.

However, incredibly, the Gardaí decided to intervene to end the picket and attempted to move the workers’ on in an aggressive manner including following the strikers down the road and away from their former workplace. Some of the strikers were visibly upset with this course of action and with being ordered to move on.

It is outrageous that despite years of long service to Debenhams, these workers, mainly women, having been callously laid off by the Company, were subjected to the harsh powers given to the Gardáí under the legislation to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Particularly when on the very same day, a group of around 100 odious right-wing elements held a protest outside the High Court with no regard to the social distancing legislation. For this group the Gardaí chose not to intervene!

On Wednesday of the following week, on the 29 April, the workers continued their campaign of action. A number of protests were held outside Debenham stores and the Bank of Ireland who is a major shareholder in the company. Despite the inclement conditions, the workers braved the elements to battle to save their jobs. Slogans such as “this is an essential protest” and “Debenhams
used Covid-19 to bail on us” reflected the deep anger of the workers. This protest was supported by CWI Ireland, many trade unionists, Left political parties and working class people. However, again, in Cork this time, the Gardaí decided to take an unnecessary heavy hand by demanding the personal details of the workers on the picket.

In an example of working class defiance the Debenham’s workers have bravely pressed on with their campaign by picketing the Dáil and TDs clinics and offices on Wednesday 6 May.

CWI Ireland supports fully the Debenhams workers in their campaign and struggle. In particular, their demand for maximum redundancy pay to be paid to them. But also they have raised the more important demands that the jobs be saved and for the company to be taken into public ownership. Moreover, the workers have demanded that the company’s books be opened for inspection by their union. These demands reflect a rising consciousness among workers that the bosses, during the COVID-19 crisis, are going to use any excuse to shut down workplaces and get rid of workers. The workers have demonstrated to the labour movement that it is possible to mobilise to defend ourselves even at a time of crisis like the present

.This attack on jobs by Debenhams is a glimpse of what is to come in retail and other key sectors post the current lockdown. Unions must now abandon the failed social partnership model and prepare an organised rank and file led fightback on behalf of all workers.

CWI Ireland demands the nationalisation of the major companies under democratic trade union and workers control. We also demand full PPE for all workers who need it, and no return to unsafe working conditions without loss of pay. Trade Unions and workers should also demand the removal of all anti-worker legislation such as the 1990 Industrial Relations Act and an end to repressive state legislation such as we have seen in the Debenham’s struggle.

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